NRO to add more commercial image providers as it builds ‘hybrid architecture’

Pete Muend: Several commercial space RF data providers likely to be announced next month

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office plans to select several providers of radio frequency data collected by commercial satellites next month. RF data is used to track ships, vehicles or any device emitting radio frequency signals.

Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s business systems program office, said several proposals had been received after the agency launched a solicitation in July. The plan is to sign agreements that give the NRO access to data collected by the companies’ commercial satellites so that government analysts can better understand the quality of the data.

Another key objective of these contracts is to understand how to integrate commercial data into government ground systems, Muend said Aug. 25 during an online event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

The agreements with RF data providers would be the second round of study contracts awarded by the NRO this year. In January, the agency selected five suppliers commercial synthetic aperture radar imagery.

The NRO is the US intelligence agency responsible fohr develop, launch and operate the country’s spy satellites. It is also the main acquirer of commercial images for the federal government.

“We want to be able to understand where commercial remote sensing capabilities are and help inform operational capabilities and possibly long-term requirements,” Muend said.

Even though these are study contracts, the companies provide a significant amount of data used in day-to-day operations, he said. “The radar contracts are going very well, providing a lot of data to the user community.”

The NRO is trying to build a hybrid or mixed architecture of government and commercial remote sensing satellites, Muend said. The agency has signed 10-year agreements with three providers of electro-optical imaging but so far it has not awarded similar contracts to vendors of other types of imagery like radar, RF and hyperspectral. Muend said study contracts with a wide range of suppliers will inform “formal declarations of capabilities” that could lead to long-term contracts.

The agency last year launched a new program called strategic business improvements with the aim of attracting non-traditional suppliers.

Muend said the commercial enhancements program enables the NRO to take advantage of emerging space industry systems and move closer to its goal of a hybrid architecture with data from commercial and government satellites analyzed side-by-side.

Building a mixed architecture is a complex task, Muend said. “There are a lot of things that go into making this operationally efficient… Integrating data into ground systems is a big part of the work we have going on.”

Commercial vendors, on average, deliver more than 75,000 images each week to the NRO’s terrestrial enterprise, Muend said. “That’s a very significant amount of imagery,” he said, although he couldn’t specify how much of the overall imagery used by the NRO comes from commercial sources.

“As I said, the ground is a very important element in making this useful,” he insisted. “It’s one thing to have contracts in place to get the data, but making it work as part of a larger hybrid enterprise is key.”

The idea is to derive the ‘best total value’ from national and commercial systems for providing information and intelligence. “We spend a lot of time and energy working to ensure that the architecture on the ground can seamlessly connect to multiple large-scale commercial providers, going beyond, I would say, historic stovepipes.”

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